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Navigating Coral Reefs In The Caribbean

This is the time of the year when the lucky ones among us head south to the Caribbean or elsewhere to enjoy some sailing and chartering in the sun. The tropics are great, but you will notice that often the charts are not completely accurate and that you spend a lot of time eyeballing your way into lovely reef-protected anchorages. Navigating in coral strewn waters is not hard if you follow a few simple rules.

1. Protect the reef as well as the boat. Coral is a delicate life form and coral gardens worldwide are under stress. So, make sure you don’t drop your anchor in a live coral patch and make sure you don’t crush coral with your keel as that’s bad for the coral and bad for the boat.

2. Eyeballing through coral, you will see that the color of the water or of the bottom below will tell you what lies ahead. Deep blue water is deep water. As it gets shallower, the water will change from blue to turquoise, to light turquoise, to yellow, and finally to white. Coral heads will appear as dark smudges, or if you are looking at white brain coral, the reef will reflect sunlight and be light tan or yellow. Grassy patches and small trade wind cloud shadows can fool you into thinking they are coral heads.

3. For the best view, you want to be as high above the water as possible, so you may want to stand on the boom or climb to the spreaders. Even just standing tall on the cabin top forward will help.

4. Sunlight will make the water surface opaque if the sun is ahead of you and will shine down through the water clearly when it is behind you. Keep the sun at your back as you start navigating through coral patches. And, don’t try to make a difficult entrance when the sun is low in the late afternoon; you won’t be able to see anything beneath you clearly. We like to have our anchor down around 3pm when gunkholing amidst the coral.

From the Boat Rat's Tip of the Week  section of Blue Water Sailing Magazine's Cruising Compass Weekly Newsletter.


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